Watsonville strawberries

Strawberries became the leading crop in 2020 despite financial losses the industry faced during the first months of shelter-in-place orders.

The year of Covid was a challenge for everyone, including the agriculture industry. Growers and ranchers faced issues beyond the normal challenges, such as pests and wildfires—in 2020, they also had to face a pandemic that changed the way workers did their daily tasks and interacted with each other to comply with Covid-19 protocols. 

And the Monterey County crop report for 2020, released July 20, told that challenging tale in numbers.

“We had the greatest loss ever, not only in percentage production at about 11.3 percent, but also in value at an almost $500 million loss,” said Monterey County Agricultural Commissioner Henry Gonzales of the $3.9 billion year. He said this is the first time since 2011 the gross value of agricultural production, including crops and livestock and poultry, fell below the $4 billion mark. 

This year, strawberries unseated leaf lettuce as the leading crop, with almost $1 billion gross revenue. Gonzales said strawberries had their “best year ever,” and he attributed it to the increase of acreage dedicated to the fruit, as well as good prices. Strawberries saw losses of $16 million during the first two months of shelter-in-place. Later on, the industry experienced a surge in consumer demand. “Between the commitment of the industry to work in the supply chain with retailers and the emergency action by the USDA [which used emergency funds to purchase strawberries], that really helped to stabilize the marketplace,” said Rick Tomlinson of the California Strawberry Commission. 

Organic production (measured both sales and cultivated acres) grew in 2020 from $562.7 million to $757.8 million. Exports, measured in pounds, also increased.  

Cannabis production revenue grew by $34.4 million, a 7.6-percent increase, to over $484 million. Aaron Johnson, an attorney and founder of the Coastal Growers Association, said demand for cannabis increased during the pandemic, but now growers are seeing lower prices due to lower demand and higher production: “I actually expect a 20- to 25-percent reduction in revenues over the next year.” 

Grapes were heavily affected by wildfires; sales decreased 43 percent ($80 million less than 2019), said Kim Stemler, executive director of the Monterey County Vintners and Growers Association. The reduction was due to three main factors: damaged grapes due to wildfires; lack of testing capacity to determine quality of grapes and crop insurance requirements. 

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